The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged the Trump administration Thursday to resume federal oversight of troubled police departments and reinstate the Justice Department’s community policing office — steps that would reverse an effort by Jeff Sessions, the recently departed attorney general, to limit federal oversight of local police departments.
The commission’s 200-page report, endorsed by a majority of the eight members, concludes that black Americans, among others, have valid concerns about police violence and lack of officer accountability.
In response, the report concludes, federal officials should resume the practice — abandoned since Donald Trump became president — of investigating local police departments accused of systemic civil rights violations and resurrect the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
“The Department of Justice is turning its back on the important work that has been done in the past,” Commission Chairman Catherine Lhamon said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It is critically important for the Department of Justice to return to vigorous enforcement of constitutional policing.”
Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department aggressively investigated allegations of civil rights violations by local police departments, opening more than two dozen inquiries and entering at least 14 “consent decrees” in which local officials agreed to enact reforms and submit to a federal monitor. During the Trump administration, the federal government has walked away from efforts to oversee local departments.
During his nearly two years leading the Justice Department, Sessions did not open any investigations of local police departments, and he publicly disparaged the rigor and accuracy of previous federal inquiries that had documented civil rights violations by police. In some cases, local police departments that had requested federal review and spent years engaged in overhauls were forced to petition the Justice Department for access to the results of those voluntary investigations. And, in his final act in office before resigning last week, Sessions issued a memo making it more difficult for federal officials to broker consent decrees.
The Justice Department could not be immediately reached for comment.
But the commission concluded that federal investigations resulting in consent decrees remain the most effective means of transforming departments and ensuring constitutional policing.
“The evidence is very strong that having federal oversight in terms of a court decree has dramatically improved the quality of life in communities with those agreements,” said Lhamon, a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department. “The turn away that we’re seeing in this administration is a turn against civil rights.”
The commission’s two conservative members voted against the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
Created in 1957, the commission is a bipartisan panel of presidential and congressional appointees who conduct investigations and issue federal policy recommendations on civil rights matters. The panel, which has changed its focus with each presidential administration, provided recommendations crucial to the eventual passages of the civil rights acts of 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The commission’s members voted unanimously to investigate police use of force in December 2014, at a time when the police killings of Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland had prompted massive protests nationwide. The panel held a public hearing in April 2015 that included testimony from activists, police officials and criminologists.
The new report includes summaries and analysis of major investigations of police use of force and accountability conducted by media outlets including The Post, the Guardian, BuzzFeed News, as well as dozens of reports by criminologists and other experts that have been published in recent years.
The commission’s findings echo several areas of growing consensus among criminologists: that it is possible to reduce the frequency with which police officers use deadly force, that disproportionate rates of police use of force in minority communities erodes their trust in law enforcement and that current federal data-collection efforts are highly inadequate.
The report recommends that Congress pass legislation requiring local police departments to provide reliable data about police use of force and that federal funding be denied to those that refuse. The commission notes that the most comprehensive data about how often police officers use fatal force is in databases maintained by The Post and other media outlets.
“We need to have better data,” Lhamon said. “We need to be able to know what it is that communities are experiencing.”
In 2015, The Post and the Guardian created separate databases to track fatal police shootings and other deaths in custody to make up for the lack of reliable data collected by the Justice Department. Following those efforts, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced in 2016 that the department would begin collecting and releasing more reliable data. Those efforts have not been fruitful.
To fill the gap in federal data collection, the commission recommended that Congress make reporting use-of-force data to the DOJ a condition for local police departments' receipt of federal funding. That data should then be maintained in a public national database maintained by DOJ, the report recommends, and federal officials should publicly name any department that does not provide data.
The report makes additional recommendations, including congressional funding for new research into police oversight, more police training for de-escalation and local reforms that would change the grand jury process for police killings — having local judges, not prosecutors, oversee them and creating an open record of their proceedings.
In a dissent to the report, Commissioner Gail Heriot wrote that not enough of the public conversation about criminal justice focuses on the rates at which black Americans commit crime and expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of federal oversight of local police departments. She also voiced the theory popular among some conservatives and police officials that increased scrutiny of police will result in them abandoning their obligations to protect the public.
“It’s not easy to insist both that police officers vigorously protect the public from crime and that they refrain from using force when they believe it is to be necessary for their own self-defense,” wrote Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego who was appointed to the commission in 2007. “Training is helpful, but all the training in the world will not resolve the underlying tension between those two aspirations. Instead, the more likely result is that police officers will avoid engaging with individuals they regard as dangerous.”
In his dissent, Peter Kirsanow, a Republican lawyer from Cleveland who has been on the commission since 2006, wrote that the fact that a Justice Department investigation found that Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, probably did not have his hands up in surrender when he was killed by an officer in Ferguso in 2014 — a widely believed account that propelled the street protests and national outrage — should prompt skepticism of allegations of unnecessary force by police officers.
“The events that prompted this report were based on a lie,” Kirsanow wrote, referring to the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant protesters adopted. “There are certainly individuals like Walter Scott who are completely innocent of wrongdoing, but it is far more common that individuals are killed by police after they have escalated a situation to a point where it is a life-or-death struggle.
Lhamon, the committee chairman, said that dissenting opinions are not uncommon on the bipartisan committee. She said that the majority of the commission’s members think the issues of police use of force and accountability remain urgent, citing a fatal police shooting days ago in Chicago in which a black man who had helped stop a shooting by a drunk bar patron was killed by responding police officers.
“These issues are incredibly urgent to Americans today and every day,” Lhamon said. “The time is well past that we need to, as a country, turn a corner on the perceived schism between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect.”